NEW YORK — Since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this January, director Luca Guadagnino’s film “Call Me By Your Name” has had audiences swooning and sobbing with its poignant look at coming of age.
Based on André Aciman’s novel, it stars Timothée Chalamet as Elio, a 17-year-old American living abroad in Italy. His father, played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is a professor of archaeology, and each summer hosts a different, brilliant student. This year, as the swallows chirp and the apricots ripen on the vine, the guest is Oliver, played by the athletic, self-assured and mouth-wateringly handsome Armie Hammer. Elio and Oliver will fall in love and, as the long Tuscan days turn to nights, you will fall in love with them falling in love.
Much has been said about this film’s gorgeous swirl and striking ability to capture first love as well as the self-doubt that comes with coming out. As critic Richard Lawson put it in Vanity Fair, “Elio must act as if nothing is happening while everything is happening.”
This is a landmark in gay cinema, for somewhat paradoxical reasons. It can absolutely (and will absolutely) be enjoyed by anyone, not just gay people, as it speaks so warmly and beautifully to universal truths. But this is not a situation where the two leads “just happen to be gay.” Being gay, and that includes intimate moments, is essential to the specificity of the story. “Call Me By Your Name” can only reach everyone by being about two specific people.
I would never in a million years want to take this film “away” from the gay community. But there is an aspect to it that has been less discussed. This movie is extremely Jewish and, with its compassion, honesty, zeal and intelligence, extremely Good For The Jews.
Author André Aciman is an Egyptian-born Jew, young Manhattanite Timothy Chalamet is Jewish on his mother’s side, Stuhlbarg grew up Jewish in California before coming to New York to study and Hammer is, in fact, a direct descendant of industrialist/philanthropist Armand Hammer. More importantly, all their characters are Jewish, and the type of Jew that we know in life but hardly ever see in films.
Stuhlbarg’s professor is a welcoming bon vivant, but not in a loud l’chaim-clinking Topol kind of way. He is an intellectual whose greatest vice is trying to trip up a student on a rare etymological point. He, his wife and son all toggle between three languages (Italian, French and English) and discuss classical art and aesthetics and history.
Elio’s hobbies include playing Bach melodies in the style of Liszt and then in the style of Busoni tweaking Liszt’s changes. (Oliver looks on unimpressed: just play it like Bach.)
I should point out this is set in the 1980s, when young minds weren’t poisoned by YouTube, but it’s also a Platonic ideal of the “enriched millieu” — the perhaps stereotypical view of Jewish cultural emphasis on education. People of the Book, as they say. This is a movie where Armie Hammer lays topless as he tries to parse the phrases of Heidegger (Heidegger!) before dunking himself in an old stone pool.
These are Jews who probably know the Pentateuch backward and forward but are ultimately secular. Indeed, there is no Judaica to be found in their Italian villa, which is why Oliver’s star of David necklace is such a standout. (Well, that and because is lays against his chest hair.)
“I know what it is to be the odd Jew out,” Oliver assures the more timid Elio. Oliver comes from New England, and Elio’s family are the only Jews in this collection of sleepy Italian towns.
“My mother says we are Jews of discretion,” Elio says later, when Oliver is playing with and cracking his toes. “Where did you learn to do that?” Elio asks. “My bubbe taught me,” the older boy says.
As with any coming out story, there is worry about what the parents will think. This open, honest, Jewish family is not reflective of many films you’ve seen before. Elio discusses the near-loss of his virginity with a local girl with a charming, healthy frankness. (The specifics of the plot I’ll leave out, but this young woman plays an important part in the eventual true romance.) The film ends with not just one of the great, understanding parenting monologues, but one of the great monologues in cinema.
Michael Stuhlbarg, who, naturally, “knew” all along, talks around his son’s romance with his protege. He gives him space to come to him for advice, or to let it alone, but offers some heartbreaking advice: “How you live your life is your business. Remember, our hearts and our bodies are given to us only once. And before you know it, your heart is worn out, and, as for your body, there comes a point when no one looks at it, much less wants to come near it.”
It’s the menschiest thing you’ll ever hear, but salted with just the right amount honest, fatalist humor.
We can’t bring back the endless summers of youth, but we can recall their spirit. “Call Me By Your Name” can be considered an idealistic film, but that’s only natural for something about young people experiencing something wonderful for the first time. It prompts us in the audience — and us as Jews — to live up to our ideal selves.
“Call Me By Your Name” is opening the upcoming Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on December 16.